Question 11.

What is the Gada system? Was it a system used through out Oromia or was it prevalent in one region of Oromia only? and the follow up question is politically speaking, was there an Oromia nation before Menelik?


The original homeland of the Oromo ethnic people is believed to be in the present region of Bali and parts of Sidamo. Particularly, Guji and northern Borena land areas seemed to be recognized as the cradle land of Oromo culture. It was from these areas that the Oromo ethnic groups migrated into the eastern, western, and central highlands of Ethiopia and intermingled with the people inhabiting over these areas starting from the second quarter of the sixteenth century. Prior to their migration, the Oromo ethnic groups were pastorals and semi agriculturalist, and their social organization was based on an egalitarian socio-political and cultural institution called Gada.

The Gada system was a system of an age-grade classes (luba) that succeed each other every eight years in assuming military, economy, political and ritual responsibilities. Each Gada class remained in power during a specific term (Gada) which began and ended with a formal power transfer ceremony. Before assuming a position of leadership, the Gada class is required to wage war against a community that none of their ancestors had raided. This particular war is known as Butta and is waged on schedule every eight years. (See, Asmarom Legesse (1973), Gada: Three Approaches to the Study of African Societies. London, p.8; Mohammed Hassen (1990), The Oromo of Ethiopia: A History 1570-1860). Cambridge, pp. 9-17). The Gada system spread with the migration and intermingle of the Oromo ethnic group and following their permanent settlement the system began to shade its traditional egalitarian socio-political character. (Refer our earlier discussion on the Zemene Mesafint in Southern Ethiopia).

Regarding the second part of the question, "was there an Oromia nation before Menelik", I could not find literature specifically addressing this point. During my stay at the 12th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, I asked this same question to one scholar who is an Oromo by ethnic. He said "you have the Oromigna language that has different dialects; you have a Gada system which gives sense to an Oromo living in Welega and Hara". I then asked him bluntly if he meant by that an Oromia nation and he said yes. Accordingly, he has considered two or three factors to define a nation: common language, culture, and I suspect he had also in mind defined geography. Others may have different definition, but what is the point to try discuss and write on "Oromia nation", for that mater on any "non-dominant" ethnic group. What is the purpose behind the "scholarly" interest to construct the historical past of an ethnic group and attempts to mythology. And how are we able to analyse and understand the various activities by national(ist) movements of a "non- dominant" ethnic groups?

I would like to take this opportunity to raise some issues and methods which I believe may help us to understand nation and national(ist) movements by "non-dominant" ethnic groups. Looking back to the history of Europe, and going through the bulk of literature on nations and nationalism, one has the impression that "nation" is a product of long and complicated process of historical development. To all intents and purposes, "nation" is defined as "a large social group integrated not by one but by a combination of several kinds of objective relationships (economic, political, linguistic, cultural, religious, geographical, historical), and their subjective reflection in collective consciousness". Many of these ties could be mutually substitutable, but, among them, three stands out as irreplaceable:

i) a memory of some common past, treated as destiny of the group,

ii) a density of linguistic or cultural ties enabling a higher degree of social communication within the group than beyond it,

iii) a conception of the equality of all members of the group organized as a civil society.

If we follow this definition, then there was no "Oromia nation" in the past. There were Oromo people, their history and socio-political organization, but we do not find the ties in a "collective consciousness". That is why today we find activists both inside and outside the government demanding national self determination, and the discussion around "Oromia nation", as part of an effort to create "memory of some common past". Ethnic national movement starts the moment when selected groups within the non-dominant ethnic community begin to discuss their own ethnicity and to conceive of it as a potential nation-to-be. The demand for national self determination could mean autonomy or statehood, and it all depends on the political development. The growth from cultural national movement to a political one (to a state nationhood) has at least three stages:

Phase One: the "patriotic stage", at this stage the energy of the activists is devoted to scholarly enquiry into and dissemination of an awareness of the linguistic, cultural, social and sometime historical attributes of the non-dominant ethnic group. At this stage the activists may not press specifically national demands. Their intellectual activity may not be called an organized social or political movement. Some members of their group may not even believe that their ethnic could develop into a nation. At this stage the activists mainly collect information about the history, language and custom of their ethnic group. They try to "discover" the ethnic group and lay a base for the subsequent formation of a "national identity".

Phase Two: is the stage of "national agitation", a new range of activists emerge seeking to win over as many of their ethnic group as possible to the project of creating a future nation, by agitation to awaken national consciousness among them.

Phase Three: the stage of "mass movement", in which the major part of the ethnic population store their special national identity. This stage heralds the birth of the nation state.

The question is now does an ethnic movement which passed the first two phases reach into the critical phase three? In other words what are the objective circumstances which ultimately lead successfully in passing over into a mass movement of phase three and attaining the imagined nation. There are three factors:

i) the degree of success in creating and agitating the "memory of former independence or statehood situated far in the past". This could stimulate not only historical consciousness and ethnic solidarity, but the continuity of past history and "violation of a historical right". In Ethiopia, we have seen cases argued based on theory of colonialism and colonial history.

ii) the degree of social mobility and communication: if more members and activists from the ethnic group attain higher vertical social mobility, "national agitation", (phase two), has more appealing. In other words increase in the number of educated elite from the non-dominant ethnic group. In addition, the rate of literacy among the peasant population (literary tradition of the ethnic group) facilitates social communication as the transmission of information. (Activists of the Oromo national(ist) movement have introduced Latin alphabet in the Oromo language, have they considered this alphabet as an asset?)

iii) besides the above two circumstances, a weighing factor is the degree of crisis and conflict of interests: absolute repression lives no room for a developed form of political discourse or argument. In this kind of system it is easy to articulate social contradictions or hostilities in national language--as danger to a particular language or ethnic group. In societies where you have a high level of political culture and experience, conflicts of interests are often articulated in political terms not in national terms. Issues of human and civil right are, therefor, important for national integration.

To conclude, theoretically speaking, the basic precondition of all national(ist) movements of ethnic group is a deep crisis of the order, with the breakdown of its legitimacy, and of the values and sentiments that sustained it. This crisis is combined with economic depression and wide spread poverty, social decline, generating increasing popular distress. A third crucial element of the situation is the prevalence of low level of political culture and experience particularly among the elite. The coincidence of these three conditions unleash ethnic movements and once they acquire a mass character, they can not be stopped by use of force. The remedy against this danger is prevalence of unconditional democracy and economic prosperity.

Further Readings:

Hroch, Miroslav (1985), Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe,London.

Hobsbawn, E.J. (1990), Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. Programme, Myth and Reality. Cambridge.

With Best Regards

Tsegaye T.